Saturday, 29 February 2020

More than just a rugby match: Danny Cipriani, Gloucester and #BeKind

Rugby was eclipsed by a far bigger issue as Gloucester hosted Sale Sharks in a match that was focused on raising awareness and funds for mental health support.

Sale may have narrowly beaten their hosts, but Gloucester boss Johan Ackermann was as keen to use his post-match interview to spread the message of loving one's neighbour as he was to diagnose where it went wrong for his side.

The game raised money for the Samaritans and was inspired by Gloucester fly-half Danny Cipriani's emotional tribute to former girlfriend Caroline Flack a week earlier.

For the evening, Gloucester players' names on the back of their shirts were replaced by the hashtag "BeKind".

My piece for The Times reflects on a match with a difference as well as Sale's heady ascent up the Premiership table.

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Ireland v Samoa: Talking points and reaction as the Irish qualify from Pool A at Rugby World Cup

A busy time down in Fukuoka last night, covering Ireland's emphatic win over Samoa. On-the-whistle pieces for The Independent and The Guardian, and more reflective pieces for The Observer and The Rugby Paper.

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Scotland captain John Barclay: "I need to prove I deserve to be involved against Japan”

John Barclay insists he is not looking beyond Thursday's encounter with Russia, despite Scotland's looming - and intriguing - Pool A denouement against Japan.

Barclay started in Scotland's dismal opening loss to Ireland and was dropped from the match-day squad for the much-improved win over Samoa.

But he will captain Scotland against Russia in Shizuoka tomorrow as head coach Gregor Townsend makes 14-changes. Townsend is seeking to rest key players ahead of the showdown with Japan just four days later.

The flanker (pictured) says he "needs to prove" he deserves to be involved against Japan in Yokohama, but is first and foremost focused on getting a job done against Russia.

Barclay said: "I have been frustrated since the Ireland game.

"The whole game was frustrating, but it’s part of being a rugby player.

“Samoa was the first time I have been left out of the squad since I returned to the fold. It’s been tough.

“The big game for me is Russia - all my focus is on Russia. I have no idea what the team will be for Japan.

“I guess the reality is that the guys who are playing against Russia will be on the outskirts for the next game.

“It doesn’t take much to work out. But, equally, for the guys who are playing against Russia there is huge motivation to get involved for that Japan match.

“The reality is there will need to be a big performance and I need to prove I deserve to be involved against Japan.”

Russia frustrated Ireland for long stretches of their clash in Kobe, making the Irish sweat over a bonus-point. Scotland need a bonus-point against the Bears too; get that under their belts and they will trail Japan by four points going into their match in Yokohama.

But Barclay impressed upon his team the importance of not chasing the four tries too hard during Wednesday's captain's run at the Stadium Ecopa in Shizuoka.

"I’ve played enough of these games where if you try to score four tries before you score one you can get in a bit of trouble," he said.

"We’re not thinking about that early on. If it gets to 70 minutes and we’ve scored one that might become the case but we have to back ourselves and not try to score the fourth before we’ve scored the third.

"We need to back our skills, grind them down; we believe our fitness will be superior to theirs. We’ll back ourselves and we’re confident, but we’ve seen the trouble Russia have given every team they’ve played.

"They’re physical, hard at the breakdown, they make things niggly and awkward. When they have the ball they’re abrasive and direct, and they’re hard. We’re under no illusions about it."

Sunday, 6 October 2019

Bundee Aki ignores "project players" controversy and is ready to do Ireland proud against Samoa

Bundee Aki says he will “do Ireland proud” if he get the chance to secure the nation’s place in the knock-out stages against the country of his ancestry.

Samoa are Ireland’s final Pool A opposition in Fukuoka on Saturday, and Aki, who is of Samoan descent, is ignoring the comments of those who question his right to play for the Emerald Isle.

Born in New Zealand, Aki qualified to play for Ireland in 2017 through residency after leaving Auckland with his family three years earlier.

Since then, the centre has excelled for Connacht and become a hard-tackling and hard-running facet of Joe Schmidt’s midfield.

All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster said of Aki in November: “They’ve turned him into an Irishman – he looks like an Irishman now, doesn’t he?” Aki subsequently excelled in Ireland’s first win over New Zealand in Dublin.

Ahead of the World Cup, Aki remarked that “some people won’t be happy with me pulling on an Irish jersey,” but now says he is focused on winning his place in the starting line-up against Samoa.

Aki said: “If I do get the nod then it will be just the same as when I played against New Zealand.

“Everybody has their view on the residency and they have their right to an opinion.”

The question of overseas-born players representing Ireland - or "project players" - has also arisen in connection with South African forwards Jean Kleyn and CJ Stander. World Rugby will increase the residency qualifying period from three to five years after the World Cup.

“For me, I’m just going to try and do the best I can for this jersey, make sure I play well whenever I get the chance on the field and do Ireland proud, as I always try and do,” said Aki.

“That’s all I can do as a player, regardless of what people think.

“I’m going to focus on what I can do: get in the team first, and put in a good performance.”

Thursday, 3 October 2019

Andy Farrell: Ireland must benefit from Japan set-back like England handled turmoil in 2007 World Cup

Ireland coach Andy Farrell believes his experience of England’s World Cup “turmoil” in 2007 can be used to Ireland’s advantage as they seek to bounce back from their shock defeat to Japan.

Defence coach Farrell, who will take over the head coach role from Joe Schmidt after the World Cup, says Ireland’s performance in their 19-12 defeat to Japan in Shizuoka “wasn’t good enough”, but says the tournament has a history of sides who have profitably adapted to early disappointments.

“You can use a set-back in the right manner,” said Farrell, who in 2007 was part of Brian Ashton’s squad during England’s bumpy campaign in France. The team suffered a 36-0 thrashing in the group stage by eventual winners South Africa.

“In 2007 I was part of the England squad that got a thrashing off South Africa and there was a bit of turmoil in that camp, and we managed to get to the final. And there was a debatable (Mark Cueto) try in the final that was disallowed.

“In 2011, France seemed to be in disarray throughout that competition and there’s a debate over whether they should have won that final.

“So, you can use these set-backs to your advantage. They’re not ideal but you can use them to your advantage.”

Farrell said the inquest since the loss to Japan on Saturday had been extensive. Ireland play Russia in Pool A on Thursday.

“The performance against Japan wasn’t good enough,” he said. “There was a lot of disappointment within the camp. We’ve had a good few meetings since then.

“After a couple of days of understanding why we lost, we’re in good spirits, back on track and ready to make a point.

“The feeling in the camp is one of excitement and wanting to put things right on Thursday night. It can’t come quick enough.

“It wouldn’t matter who we were playing this week – Russia or New Zealand. We need to get back on the horse.”

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Manu Tuilagi is England's key asset for Japan World Cup, says Jason Robinson

Jason Robinson believes Manu Tuilagi will channel years of injury frustration to become England’s game-changing star during the World Cup.

Tuilagi scored twice in the 35-3 win over Tonga, making 93m for England in 11 ball carries.

Robinson, who scored England’s try in their victory over Australia in the 2003 final, worked with the England squad before they flew out to Japan and says Tuilagi was the stand-out performer.

“I’m so excited about Manu,” says Robinson, who is now an ambassador for Rugby World Cup sponsor Mastercard. “He’s had his injuries, he’s been off for a long, long time, but having watched him in training, he’s just so strong."

Leicester centre Tuilagi has had a string of lower-body injury issues stretching back to 2014, A groin problem sidelined him in 2017, and it wasn't until February that he made his first England start since 2014.

Following Sunday’s four-try win over Tonga, England head coach Eddie Jones declared that Tuilagi was “increasingly getting close to his best”, and Robinson believes the 28-year-old is using the misery of years of on-off injury as a source of motivation.

“Physically, pound for pound, Manu’s one of the strongest out there at the World Cup. And he’s got a spring in his step.”

BOOK LAUNCH: 'Sports Journalism: The State of Play'

My latest book, Sports Journalism: The State of Play, has just been published by Routledge, with a positive reaction from the industry.

The book contains insights and predictions into the changing world of sports journalism, and is aimed at both practising sports journalists, aspiring sports journalists, and sports media academics.

Interviewees include a range of leading sports journalists, including Anna Kessel, Stuart James, Sam Peters, Steve Marshall, David Emery and James Pearce.

The Sports Journalists' Association have done a piece on the book with my co-author Daragh Minogue.

Paddy Barclay, former chairman of the SJA, says: "What this book doesn’t tell you about sports journalism in the digital age isn’t worth knowing. Tom Bradshaw and Daragh Minogue provide a comprehensive guide to the media, tracing the history of an era of often startling change and pointing to the future in a way that will educate and entertain both current and aspiring journalists. It is the most readable work - students and historians alike will enjoy learning from it, as I certainly did."

Will Cope, Sports Journalism course leader at Southampton Solent University, has also given the book his seal of approval: "Tom Bradshaw and Daragh Minogue have crafted a brilliantly well-researched, uber-contemporary, rip-roaring read that is crammed full of excellent case studies and thought-provoking content."